Once I have a basic idea for a novel, I like to start gathering inspiration and references. As I’ve described before, for me, the theme and message of my novel tend to be the first aspects to emerge, with plot following shortly after. However, even before I flesh out the story line, I like to have a solid idea of what my characters and their world are like. I realize this may seem a bit counterintuitive to some writers. However, I prefer to do world building before plot mapping for the following reasons:
Setting and characters define mood and morality. Because theme and message are the most important aspects of a novel to me, I want the world and its people to be built to best convey these elements.
Setting influences plot. Most writers dream up their plot and then shape their world to best facilitate the action. While I do this, too, I like to start with a rough map of where my action takes place. After all, the novel’s world and its people will determine the reality of the novel, the parameters of the fictional world, which give a writer guidelines on what the plot can and cannot do within this world.
Characters influence plot. If I know my characters fairly well before I begin plotting, I have a good idea about what they will and will not do. This prevents me from taking the plot in a direction that does not seem authentic to my characters.
Now, while all this sounds hunky-dory, sometimes it is difficult to find inspiration. Or, even if you breathe inspiration with every air particle, it is sometimes difficult to find the right inspirational references for your particular setting and characters — especially if your idea is in a genre or part of a theme you haven’t worked with before. The latter has been my case for this year’s NaNoWriMo preparation. I have lots of ideas, but the setting and characters I have chosen to execute my plot are unlike anything or anyone I’ve crafted before. Therefore, I couldn’t rely on past knowledge. I had to actively go out and seek inspiration. In case you are in the same boat, here are some time-tested ways to gather inspiration and references:
Research, research, research. No matter how familiar you are with your writing material, even if you have chosen to “write what you know,” there is always more to learn. Scan some Wikipedia pages, search Google images, go to the library, visit a location or group of people, if you can. Just get knowledgeable. This Wikipedia page was a good starting place for me.
Read books and watch movies. Absorb other media in which a similar setting or character types can be found. By seeing what others have done, you will know the hallmarks of your chosen world and people. This is good, because it allows you to align yourself with certain genres and themes and make your book more marketable. On the other hand, it also allows you to see what’s already been done, so you don’t repeat history.
Write what you know (almost). I have an intense love-hate relationship with this advice. On one hand, it’s true — writing about what you know makes writing easier, as you have less research to do and more confidence in your material. It can also be really boring. Therefore, if you decide to place your novel in a familiar setting or base your characters on familiar people, make sure to mix it up for yourself. Give your hometown a mysterious abandoned warehouse or beautiful sunflower field, give your well-known characters an unknown disease or occupation. There’s lots of ways to take a familiar home base and turn it into exciting new territory.
Get on Pinterest. Pinterest (and other image websites) are full of visual inspiration. You can start with one search, which will yield hundreds of images, and then take suggestions and follow them down new rabbit holes. Also, you can keep all of your references in one place and see how different elements work together. For an example, you can check out my NaNoWriMo 2014 Pinterest board and the board for another project idea.
Keep a journal. You never know when inspiration will strike. Keep an electronic or paper journal handy and photograph or write down every little thing that catches your fancy. (After all, we can’t spend all day on Pinterest and Instagram.) At first, these random snapshots will seem relatively insignificant. Over time, you’ll have an overflowing well of inspiration. The journals on the right are mine – gray for fiction and red for nonfiction.
Okay, so now you’ve researched your ideas and gathered your inspirational references. You know what settings like yours look like and what characters like yours look and act like. You have used what you know as a gateway into a larger fiction world. You have spent time applying your knowledge to find visual representations of your setting and characters and continued mapping daily inspirations for the future. Now what?
Well, of course, you’re the inspired one! You know what to do — get writing!
However, if you want some more Kate advice, tune in tomorrow for my biggest rule on putting inspiration into action: The Puffin Rule.
And as always, NaNoWriMo participants can check me out and add me as a writing buddy here.
How do you compile inspirational references? How important is seeking out inspiration for your writing process? Let me know!